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Off The Shelf - From the Front Row

Stepping outside my regular book review, this month I take a moment to reflect on criticism in general. Having recently taken part in the Darwin Festival ‘Front Row’ program, temporarily inhabiting the rather uneasy status of emerging local critic, I found much to reflect on…

By Kate Rendell

Ah Darwin Festival! That glorious time of year when the nights are cool, Civic Park is transformed and the city comes alive with events – a brief but lavish period that thrills and exhausts in equal measure.

This year I was privileged to experience Darwin Festival from a different vantage point. I attended a selection of shows, conversation circles and workshops as part of the Festival’s ‘Front Row’ critics program – a developmental initiative established in partnership between the Festival and Brown’s Mart Theatre in response to the lack of local criticism in Darwin.

Such opportunity for critical exchange and reflection was exhilarating! Donning my artist pass and festival tote bag, I excitedly gathered in conversation after each show.

My heady confidence was relatively short lived, however. A few days into the Festival I expressed my excitement at being involved in the Front Row program to a local director.

Their response was quick and dismissive: ‘Being a critic is easy. Anyone can be a critic’. The conversation turned to other things more urgent at hand. Yet the comment had bite to it and it lingered in my mind.

There is, of course, truth to it. All criticism is subjective. Anyone can be a critic – indeed every single audience member is a critic of sorts.

What was it about my response that is worth writing? What kind of expertise does a critic claim?

In a different conversation, another arts colleague expressed the opinion that Darwin ‘absolutely does not need reviewers but we do need a formal process for creative feedback’ – which I took to mean that producers and directors could be part of the local developmental process but critics could not.

I started to wonder what the value of criticism was for Darwin specifically? In a small arts community it is hard to imagine how a formal criticism process might evolve.

Darwin audiences, for the most part, are incredibly generous.

As the awardwinning playwright Mary Anne Butler recently expressed at the NT Writers’ Festival – it is the unique character of the arts community Darwin – free of pretense – that produces a generative and supportive space to create freely.

Would the introduction of criticism diminish this unique strength? With a distinct lack of local outlets publishing critical responses, where does the emerging critic emerge? 

Hyper-aware of these questions, I continued on my critical journey somewhat more cautiously. Which is not a bad thing. For what I learnt in this program is that while anyone can be a critic, good criticism is hard work.

Criticism done well requires a willingness to look within or beyond your own immediate response. First reactions are easy but the depth of a creative work is found in exploration and interrogation.

In thinking through what it means to inhabit the position of critic, I was grateful to stumble across Jana Perković’s delightfully satirical and astute column ‘The Critic in the Episode “The Criticism”’ in The Lifted Brow – in which, in an unusually serious tone, she writes:

"It is easy to think that writing criticism means giving your opinion on the quality of somebody’s art, but that is so rarely the point. At its heart, criticism is an act of translation of art into words… an interpretive gesture."

Reading her column renewed my sense of critical purpose and value. So too did Richard Watts’ glowing 4.5 star review of Tracks Dance Company’s In Your Blood, which reminded me that in its resistance to criticism Darwin often misses the opportunity to celebrate and affirm local work within the national conversation. 

For 18 days I felt wholly consumed by the Festival. It was an immersive experience. But in reality I went to less than half of the shows.

It is intoxicating to now reflect on how many other, almost infinite, ways beyond my own there were to experience this Festival.

My reviews, and others, published online by Off The Leash, therefore, are just one of many potential readings – an interpretative gesture offered by this ‘emerging critic’ in the interest of extending the conversation.

Here’s hoping the critical conversation continues in Darwin.

Read Kate's reviews here.

Kate Rendell works as a communications manager in the arts. She is also a freelance writer and researcher. First and foremost though she is a reader.

Front Row is a skills development program for Northern Territory artists facilitated by Darwin Festival and Browns Mart Theatre. The program is for early and mid-career artists, arts workers and writers to develop their creative and professional skills. Selected participants attended performances at Darwin Festival 2018, contributed to critical conversations and took part in workshops with festival artists. As part of the program participants wrote a critical response or review of one of the performances they saw.

INFO darwinfestival.org.au

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